October 30, 2008


Nation. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Illustrated Wee Free Men. By Terry Pratchett. Illustrated by Stephen Player. HarperCollins. $24.99.

     There are so many marvels in Terry Pratchett’s world…err, worlds…that just when you think he has reached the limit of his inventiveness, he peels back another level of wonder and reveals that you’ve barely begun to see anything. Like onions within onions, his books are many-layered within multi-layered within so many layers that it is not even worth beginning to count. Just sit back and be beguiled.

     Remarkably, Pratchett is usually cast as a children’s author: both his new works are from HarperCollins Children’s Books. This is probably a way of concealing the fact, long suspected by adults and apparently known to Pratchett, that children are far wiser than grown-ups, losing not only their sense of wonder but also their senses of adventure and profound understanding as they age. Pratchett’s books are nothing but wonder, adventure and profound understanding. Nation is fantasy and alternative history with Lord of the Flies resonance and a bit of travelogue thrown in. The heir apparent to the throne of England must be taken from his current position as governor of an island chain in the South Pelagic Ocean, because the king and the next 137 people in line to the throne have inconveniently died of the Russian Plague. The heir apparent’s daughter, Ermintrude (also called Daphne), who is heading toward the island chain to join him, is shipwrecked by a tsunami that also wipes out an entire group of island people except one: a boy named Mau, who was on another island when the wave hit. It falls to the unlikely team of Ermintrude/Daphne and Mau to reestablish Mau’s nation (with a little help and a lot of interference from its spirits) using the motley collection of tsunami survivors that washes ashore here and there. But this bare plot outline says almost nothing about the book, and does not even mention the enthralling subplots (such as one involving deeply religious cannibals). Nation is filled with Pratchett’s inimitable mixture of high seriousness and lowbrow, even gross humor, and with characters in whom one cannot literally believe but about whom one comes to care deeply. There is so much here: the drive to empire paralleling the drive to build or rebuild a single nation; the certainty of straitlaced religion contrasted with Mau’s dual searches – for the meaning of his defunct nation’s gods and for his own soul; questions of gender, justice, society, and much more. And there is lots and lots of humor, often of the wry sort, as frequently as not in footnotes: “The lonesome palm…is unusual in that an adult tree secretes a poison in its root that is deadly only to other palms. Because of this it is not unusual to find only one such palm on the smaller islands and a thousand cartoons are, therefore, botanically correct.”

     And while you are imagining those cartoons, try to imagine the pictures that Stephen Player has provided for one of its Pratchett’s very best tours de farce for an edition called The Illustrated Wee Free Men. This is the story of Tiffany Aching, potential witch on Discworld, and the tiny blue Pictsies whose leader she temporarily becomes while rescuing her candy-addicted little brother from another and far more malevolent Queen whose realm is the world of dreams and for whom the Nac Mac Feegle used to steal things until even they couldn’t stand her, the Feegles having little to fear because they think they are already dead and so all their fighting and drinking are just fine because the worst that can happen is they get returned to life if they go at it too hard. Got that? Tiffany’s tales – The Wee Free Men has so far spawned two successors, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith – are among the most freewheeling and multidimensional that Pratchett has written. They call up marvelous images in a reader’s mind, and Player has done a remarkable job of capturing many of those images in ways that look and feel just right. The phases of the moon; the pages of a journal; the red-headed little men who are the most feared of all the fairy folk because there are so many of them and they simply will not stop (“Pictsies,” their nickname, is Pratchett’s sly reference to the ancient and very warlike Picts, who painted themselves blue for battle – see how he ties so many things together?); the archway through which time does not pass quite correctly; the horrific grimhounds, with fire for eyes and razors for teeth; the many creatures of dream and nightmare conjured up by Pratchett’s words – Player shows them all, and all with astonishing effectiveness. And the words of this book (which was originally published in 2003) are as wonderful as ever, right down to names ranging from Rob Anybody to Not-as-big-as-Medium-Sized-Jock-but-bigger-than-Wee-Jock-Jock. Player’s pictures capture both the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of The Wee Free Men and a great deal of the darkness lying beneath it. They do not make the book better, but they make it different in an exceptionally effective way. And although both this book and Nation are theoretically for ages 12 and up, adults who are wise enough to see things as children do will get even more from these works than young readers will.

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